Monday, September 6, 2010

Sofia Coppola: Daughter of the Revolution


There must have been a time - probably somewhere between the release of Francis Ford Coppola's abysmal career low point of Jack in 1996 and daughter Sofia's disturbingly delightful directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides at Cannes in 1999 - when the power of the father transferred to that of the daughter.  A changing of the cinematic guard so to speak.  Somewhere after the father seemingly lost what had made him one of the most important filmmakers of the 1970's, and the daughter had made a minuscule (and quite lackluster) splash as an actress, the two seemed to find themselves in some sort of twisted version of Freaky Friday.  

While the father had sank to the depths of cutsie-pie Robin Williams dramedy (though Dracula had its merits, this did come after a slowly declining slew of lesser and lesser and lesser films) the daughter gained a reputation (over just three films) of cool, acerbic cinema that was both stunning to look at and deeply resonating in characterization.  This daughter of the movie brat cinematic revolution of the seventies had come into her own.  Out of the shadow of daddy (who incidentally seems to be back on his own right track as of late) and into the limelight of flashy, pop culture auteurism (not to mention an Academy Award!).  But this is an essay about the daughter, so let's leave the genealogy behind and move on to that aforementioned flashy, pop culture auteurism of said Ms. Coppola.

First to come was the daring debut The Virgin Suicides (adapted from, they say, one of Ms. Coppola's favourite novels) about a group of mysterious sisters, all told through the remembering eyes of a group of boys (men now) who became obsessed with them.  The film is a gorgeous work, though from an obvious younger and inexperienced filmmaker.  Gorgeous nonetheless.  With an obvious nod to Picnic at Hanging Rock (both in visual style and overall mood) Coppola proved right out of the gate that she was more than just daddy's girl.  One could easily see that she had the ability to fly much higher than mere nepotism could ever take her.  The film had the tagline of "Love Sex Passion Fear Obsession" and nothing could describe the oeuvre of Sofia Coppola better than those five words.

Her next project helped prove that she was no mere one-trick pony either.  Lost in Translation was a step toward a more mature filmmaking.  This time Coppola wrote the story itself (instead of adapting someone else) and again she gave herself to the storytelling.  Again the idea of "Love Sex Passion Fear Obsession" came into it.  Starring Scarlett Johansson as a melancholy young woman visiting Japan and Bill Murray as the lonely movie star that falls for her (though perhaps not in the typical way) Coppola tackles deep emotions beneath a seeming surface of malaise.  Making everything look so empty while filling her proverbial glass to runneth-over status.  It is this cinematic trick that keeps Coppola so fresh - and so unpredictable in what will come next.  We know it will involve that aforementioned "Love Sex Passion Fear Obsession" but that is about all we know.

After becoming only the third woman to ever be nominated for a Best Director Oscar, as well as taking home the award for Best Original Screenplay, Coppola quietly went onto her next project.  A project that would leave the first two in the dust.  The film (of course) was Marie Antoinette, and this critic for one was blown away (I believe I called it the best film of 2006).  Right now I do not have the proper words, but allow me to use words from a few years back to clarify my thoughts on such a film.  Below is my original review of Marie Antoinette after first seeing it at the 2006 NYFF.

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What does one get when one combines postmodern pop sensibility, French Nouvelle Vague philosophies and eighties new wave music and pour it all into an 18th century period piece already stuffed fat and full with ravishing costumes, luscious set pieces and sexually decadent behaviour? One gets Sofia Coppola's best film yet! 

Opening with a wink and a nod, and full of candy-coloured confections of awkward yet graceful charm and wry wit, Marie Antoinette perhaps is not as surfacely deep as her two earlier films, but it does share with her predecessors a claustrophobic sense of entrapment and unheeded privilege. Like Scarlett Johansson's Charlotte in Lost in Translation, afraid to venture pass the lobby of her plush Park Hyatt Tokyo, and Kirsten Dunst herself as Lux Lisbon in The Virgin Suicides, a languorous kitten trapped by society inside her own imagined world, Marie, just fourteen when sent to marry the Dauphin of France, Louis Auguste, is like a lost little bird trapped inside the gilded cage that is Versailles. These girls, squelched by the strangulation of privilege, are what Coppola does best - for obvious autobiographical reasons - and she does it with her most grandiose hand yet in Marie Antoinette. Do not let yourself be fooled, for this is not your mother's historical biopic - it is frivolity underscored with seriousness.  Instead of faking the mannerisms of a staunchy haughty period piece - so overblown by many a great director in the past - Coppola sends Dunst out with the voice of a mall queen with daddy's credit card in her Prada bag - princess of the all-nite rave. Many critics have said Coppola and Dunst portray the teen queen as an 18th century Paris Hilton - and this is probably true on many fronts - but they also show that being Paris Hilton (or any other rich bitch prima donna) may not be all that great a thing to be after all - you just might lose your head over it.  Full of music two hundred years out of time, this pomo set piece plays out as if The Cure or New Order are perfectly in sync with an 18th century masqued ball or a royal coronation. One number in particular, Bow Wow Wow's I Want Candy booms across the soundtrack as Marie and her ladies-in-waiting go on a shopping spree full of decadent wardrobes, delicious shoes (including a pair of purple Converse snuck in for flair) and resplendently ridiculous hairstyles - never once seeming out of place. The modern music and period setting may be rather similar in vein to the films of Baz Luhrmann, but Coppola manages to weave her way past the overly trite style of a film like Moulin Rouge and belts out a film not only full of magniloquence and pretty party pieces, but also of a subtly meaty political underpinning beneath the pink frosted exterior that is this pop star Versailles. 


Peripherally responsible for the starvation of France which in turn led to the French Revolution which in turn led to the beheading of both Antoinette and Louis XVI, Coppola's queen is played more for sympathy than sneer (which assuredly led to the few boo's it received from the Cannes balconies). Showing instead, Marie Antoinette as an apathetic, hautier character, who more likely than not, ever even came into contact with the "people of France" let alone was in any capable state to rule them. The scapegoat of history - her crime being perhaps more an innocent indifference than a calculated reign of terror - Marie Antoinette was more the giggling schoolgirl of privilege than anything else. Not that this is any excuse for what the French citizenry endured during those days before the revolution (remember when George Bush the Father could not even fathom a guess on how much a quart of milk cost?), but it is most likely the most accurate way to look at this child queen. 

Even the surely apocryphal "let them eat cake" quote (the comment that launched a thousand guillotines) is played at by Coppola as if it were a snide little remark to be manipulated and teased - and Dunst's Marie, a pretty powdered present from Austria to France is commented on as "a piece of cake" early on in the film. All this leading to a pop film that seems at first glance nothing more than confectionery sugar and pink and blue sprinkles, but on deeper reflection can be seen as a politically charged dress-up film of revolutionary standards. A film that is set between 1765 and 1793 with music from 1980 through 1985 and is postmodern enough to have the heart of the cinematic future beating beneath its ostentatious chest. 

Finally, in the end, although we all know the outcome (and if you do not then read a book once and a while) we still feel a kind of sadness at this fall of Eden - a child's Eden at that. 

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Granted, there have been harsh criticisms tossed at Ms. Coppola.  Calling her films shallow and trite - pretentious even.  Some of this may be true to one extent or another (as with many of the greats, her father had the pretentious label slapped onto him more than a few times), but it is within this apparent shallowness or pretension where Coppola's films work - and then some.  She, like many an auteur before her, is creating cinema, not for the mere sake of entertainment (though it certainly is that as well!) but for the sake of cinema itself.  

Perhaps the gifts she got from her legendary father were not mere speculative transference but a God-given ability to make movies the way movies should be made.  Of course by God I mean Cinema (with a capital C) and all of its omnipotent powers-that-be.  Here's hoping she doesn't ever trudge into the temporary swamp of inadequacies of the father later in life, because for now, she just keeps getting better and better and better with each picture.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

While I can appreciate your positiveness (towards Ms Coppola) I'm encoraged to write because of your negativity in regards to senoir.
You far more eloquently state what a collegue was heard to say after his viewing of Lost in Translation (a film I found abyssmal - but that's another story). He held up a lone finger and spoke aloud "She will out do her father!"
I bit my tongue.
Yeah - The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather: Part II, Apocalypse Now...
It seems ludicrous to even mention them in the same breath. I'll wager that Sofia won't even make anything as good as The Rainmaker or Dracula. She is destined to be nothing more than a footnote next to her father - as far as filmmaking goes...

KEVYN KNOX said...

I never meant to put down the father. I merely meant to say that his output from the mid-eighties until his comeback of sorts with Youth Without Youth and Tetro (w/ the lone exception of Dracula!)was not worthy of his talents. I do say "one of the most important filmmakers of the 1970's" and I stand by that, but he, like later Altman, Allen and Scorsese had hit a low point in the nineties.

The daughter will probably never make The Godfather or Apocalypse Now (but who ever could), but she has made one better movie after the other, and one day will more than match many of her father's films (save for his incredible 70's output).